Reallocation Is Hard To Do (2)

May 6, 2011

The process of arriving at an allocation of faculty decision such as we did today has been a hard one, fraught with misunderstandings and conflicts.  I want to try here to sort our how and why this is so.

As soon as I arrived at Earlham, I began saying that “my two favorite questions” were (1) whose decision is this to make? and (2) through what process should we make the decision? These are governance questions worth asking at any institution, but they are especially important at Earlham where we try to follow Quaker-style governance procedures that make extensive use of consensus.

With a commitment to consensus, it’s easy to slip into thinking everyone gets to participate in making every decision, and a quick slide to thinking that if you don’t like some decision, it must be illegitimate; good process must have been violated.

Why is this wrong?  Because we don’t make every decision in the same way.  Different people are responsible f0r making different decisions. When a group (a committee, the Faculty as a whole, etc.) plays a role in decision-making, they work by consensus here at Earlham.  Often a group makes a recommendation, by consensus, to an individual.  Tenure decisions, for example, are recommendations to the President from two committees, a faculty one and a student one.  Both work by consensus, and try to work out a joint consensus.  The President then acts on that recommendation, giving it considerable weight and deference, but not rubber stamping it.  Finally, the Board approves a recommendation from the President, but only insofar as it is assuring itself that proper procedures have been followed.  (The Board does not inquire into the substance of the decision.)

On almost all matters we welcome everyone’s viewpoints, and try to seek them out.  But some final decisions are made by individuals (even the President), some are made by the Board, some are made by the Faculty, and some are made by individual students or faculty members.  That’s why “Doug’s two favorite questions” are important: we need to remind ourselves frequently what the specifics are of this particular decision.

So what is the decision procedure for allocation and reallocation of positions: whose decision is it to make? and through what process?

At a liberal arts and sciences college, I believe allocation and reallocation decisions are ones for a President to make, giving weight and deference to advice provided by the Faculty.  That is, this is a paradigmatic case of “shared governance.”   (On shared governance, see the important statements of the American Association of University Professors and the Association of Governing Boards.)

On the one hand, we accord to the Faculty responsibility and control over the educational program: the curriculum and the means of pedagogy.  Thus, Earlham’s By-Laws say ” The Faculty is authorized and empowered to prescribe courses of instruction, to adopt academic methods and to carry on all of the educational functions of the institution for the best interest thereof, except where the Board may take general or special action in reference thereto.”

On the other hand, the Board is the ultimate financial fiduciary and delegates to the President the responsibility to see that the institution uses its resources well within the broad outlines of Board approved budgets and policies.

Allocation of faculty involves both of these: it bears on the curriculum, and it embodies important resource commitments.  Thus it makes sense for both the Faculty and the President to be involved (substantively involved) in decisions about allocation of positions.  At Earlham, as at many other colleges and universities, we aspire to have the Faculty make recommendations about the allocation of positions, and for the President to make the final decision, giving weight and deference to the views of the Faculty.  At some institutions, the President acts on such matters with very little input from the Faculty; I know of no institution where the Faculty alone makes the final decision in allocation decisions.

Some may argue — some at Earlham have — that (a) because the Faculty have the responsibility for making curriculum decisions, therefore (b) it must also have the responsibility (and final decision) over allocation decisions.  That syllogism is too strong; it blows apart shared governance.   Allocation decisions are ones that should have (I believe, and Earlham’s governance documents believe) initiation from the Faculty in terms of a recommendation, and decision from the President giving weight to the Faculty recommendation.  Let us note that no President can be effective who does not enjoy a level of confidence among the Faculty.

How should the Faculty arrive at its recommendation?  This is the issue that has been most under discussion here the past few days.  Should it empanel a small, trusted committee to act on its behalf?  That is how Faculties typically provide recommendations about appointments, re-appointments and tenure.  Or should it make these matters that require the approval of the entire Faculty?

This latter possibility would be cumbersome, and might not yield timely recommendations.  This is especially so when, as in our case, the Faculty reaches all its decisions and recommendations by consensus.  Any allocation decision is certain to be laced with self-interest.  Some department or program will be a winner; someone else will be a loser.  Can consensus process work when self-interest is so strongly engaged?  In a Convocation in January 2010 I spoke about this problem (“Port Huron Meets Germantown Meeting; or The Promise of the New Left, the Promise of Quakerism, and What They Might Learn from One Another.”)

Even if the whole Faculty can arrive at such decisions, they are likely to take even more time if consensus is required.  I think a Faculty could choose to do it either way, small committee or whole Faculty).  But either way, the Faculty need to recognize that the President is making the final decision, and that s/he may feel a need to decide by a certain date.  A process that involves the whole Faculty may not be able to arrive at a time;y enough decision.  The President may need to act without (sadly) having received a recommendation.  I think a small committee working within broad guidance provided by the whole Faculty is the better way to proceed.

At Earlham, this week, the whole Faculty tried and failed to reach a decision about a recommended allocation.  There was overwhelming support, but not consensus, the clerk (chair of the Faculty) judged.  Subsequently, the small committee that brought forward the proposal made that proposal its recommendation to the President.  I approved it.  Some believe the committee should not have made a recommendation at all.  Four years having passed since the position became vacant, I would have felt the need to act (and had said as much) with or without a recommendation.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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